Santa with a Little Salsa

nothing-like-holidaysNothing Like the Holidays is a generic Christmas offering that would not feel out of place on the Lifetime Network. Nonetheless, this little indie should be cheered on because it has one pequeño difference.

The dysfunctional heroes here, who will be transformed by the spirit of Santa before the end credits roll, are Hispanic, and the accomplished, mostly Latino cast apparently had a blast playing Spanish-speaking Americans who are not under immediate suspicion of sneaking over the border during the night. That the action takes place in Humboldt Park, Chicago, should even put Lou Dobbs at ease.

As for the familia, the much beloved Dad (Alfred Molina) owns a highly successful bodega in Humboldt Park, Chicago. That he possibly philanders on all sides of his cash register is still in argument.

Mom (Elizabeth Peña) is your embraceable Uber Mom best illustrated by Tenneva Jordan's much quoted definition: "A mother is a person, who seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, promptly announces she never did care for pie."

As for the children, slightly wounded Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez) has just returned from Iraq; Mauricio (John Leguizamo) is a success at his white-bread law firm and has a high-powered executive, Jewish wife (Debra Messing) to prove it; while sister Roxana (Vanessa Ferlito) is rumored to be having a successful career in Hollywood as a young starlet in demand. The next "Puerto Rican Meryl Streep"?

Add some tattooed gang members, a lost romance, a disease of the week, much truth-revealing, some break dancing, plus lots of eating and shouting, and you pretty much have this tidbit dissected into all of its formulaic chunks.

There's even a towering metaphor: an old tree growing in front of the house that Mom wants torn down. Can Dad accomplish that without pulling the fenders off of his automobile? After all, he notes, "I promised your mother a view."

Luckily, the at-times cringe-worthy screenplay by Rick Najera and Alison Swan accompanied by the ghastly Paul Oakenfold score is overcome by the cast's talent and the directorial skills of Alfredo de Villa, whose first effort was the gritty, critically acclaimed Washington Heights. Moving from a Cassavetes wannabe to an unbranded movie-of-the-week helmer, de Villa still shows promise, and after all, even directors have to eat and pay rent. - Brandon Judell

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Mr. Judell, who's currently teaching "Contemporary Israeli/Palestinian Cinema" at City College, has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, and dozens of other publications.

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